The Most Underestimated Skill of A Great Leader – Andreas von der Heydt

Highly respected management guru Warren Bennis once stated that as a successful leader you need to be effective and efficient at the same time. Effective being defined as “Doing the right things.” Efficient meaning “Doing things the right way.” In summary, a successful leader would do the right things in the right way. It’s so simple. At least in theory. Why not in reality?

The answer in a nutshell: Most organizations do not spend enough time on “detailing how to implement” nor do they put the required high level of attention, commitment, and passion into getting things really done in an excellent manner until the very, very end. They do not have leaders who are capable of and willing to focus with firmness and love on Executing in Excellence.

Many corporations severely underestimate the immense importance of a rigorous Obsession of Execution Mentality, which needs to run throughout the entire organization. Every single employee would need to embrace and to love getting things done in a complete manner. Let’s apply some common sense by addressing the following question: How valuable are your objectives and your strategy – even if they were developed by the brightest people in the most sophisticated way – if you just can’t realize them? If you do not have a leader who can make people achieve the defined goals and plans?

Execution is the Great Unaddressed Issue in Today’s Business World

What I’ve observed over the years is that many corporations would spend an awful lot of time on trying to figure out what they should do. For example pondering in which market segments to invest, which products to launch, which services to offer, should they focus on growth, on cutting cost and so on. Afterwards, in a second step, they again would invest a significant amount of time to discuss the “how.” Thinking about the strategy they would like to follow. Should they improve the quality of their offering, or should they instead increase volumes to benefit from economies of scale, should they focus on their home market or should they go international, etc.

In a third step, and following good management practice as it’s being taught at every business school, they would focus on the tactics, i.e. drafting action plans in order to implement their strategy and to aim to achieve the predefined goals.

Lacking A Culture of Executing in Excellence

Many companies naively believe that once they have drafted the action plans, and listed what has to be done by whom by when by using which resources, the work is done. Almost in a Harry Potteresque manner. Or they think things gets taken care of by anonymous subordinates somewhere in their organizations.

I met executives who regarded detail work as something which is beneath the dignity of a business leader. You might assume that most likely they have spent too much time either in the sun without wearing a hat or with overpaid consultants. Or, possibly even worse, they might have done both things simultaneously.

I would argue, however, that they are completely wrong. Execution is an art; an art that separates successful organizations from less successful ones. As such Execution is one of a leader’s most important job. Full stop.

The fundamental problem is that an army of business leaders still think of Execution as the tactical side of business – something which they delegate while they indulge themselves in the perceived “bigger” topics. Consequently they do not comprehend that Execution is not just tactics – it is a discipline and a system of its own. It has to be ingrained into an organization’s objectives, culture, structure, and processes. The leader himself must be the grandmaster of Execution. Both in big and in small companies.

How to become a Master of Execution

In their excellent book Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things done, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan list the following three building blocks that need to be in place in order to make Execution happen in your organization.

Building Block One: The Leader’s Seven Essential Behaviors

To install and to keep up the real spirit, concept, and processes of Execution – and to avoid becoming a micromanager – there are seven essential behaviors which characterize a leader of execution:

  • Know your people and your business: Be engaged with your business, live your business, and be where the action is.
  • Insist on realism: It’s the heart of execution. Start by being realistic yourself. Then you make sure realism is the goal of all dialogues in the organization.
  • Set clear goals and priorities: Focus on 3-4 clear priorities that everyone can grasp. Speak and act simply and directly.
  • Follow through: Lack of it is a major cause of poor execution. Implement detailed action plans and make specific people accountable for results.
  • Reward the doers: If you want people to produce specific results, you need to reward them accordingly. Either in base pay or in bonuses and stock options.
  • Expand people’s capabilities through coaching: Pass on your knowledge, wisdom and experience to the next generation of leaders. Every encounter is an opportunity to coach.
  • Know yourself: It takes emotional fortitude to be open to whatever information you need, whether it’s what you like to hear or not.

Building Block Two: Creating The Framework For Cultural Change

Most efforts at cultural change fail because they are not linked to improving the business outcomes. The ideas and tools of cultural change are fuzzy and disconnected from strategic and operational realities. To change a business’s culture, you need a set of processes – social operating mechanisms – that will change the beliefs and behavior of people in ways that are directly linked to bottom-line results.

The basic premise is simple: Cultural change gets real when your aim is execution. You don’t need a lot of complex theory or employee surveys to use this framework. You need to change people’s behavior so that they produce results. First you need to explain people what results you’re looking for. Then you discuss how to get those results, as a key element of the coaching process. Then you reward people for delivering the results. If they come up short, you provide additional training and coaching, possibly withdraw rewards, look for other tasks and/ or jobs for them, or even let them go, if it were the best option for all main stakeholders. When you do these things correctly and sincerely, you create a culture of getting things done.

Building Block Three: The Job No Leader Should Delegate – Having the Right People in the Right Place

An organization’s human beings are its most reliable resource for generating excellent results year after year. Their judgments, experiences, and capabilities make the difference between success and failure. Sounds familiar? Yet the same leaders who exclaim that “people are our most important asset“ usually do not think very hard about choosing the right people for the right jobs. They either do not have precise ideas about what the jobs require (not only today, but tomorrow) or they’re too busy thinking about how to make their companies bigger. What they’re overlooking is that the quality of their people is the best competitive differentiator. 

Often leaders may not know enough about the people they’re appointing. They may also pick people with whom they’re comfortable, rather than others who have better skills for the job. They may not have the courage to discriminate between strong and weak performers and take the necessary actions. All of these reflect one absolutely fundamental shortcoming: The leaders aren’t personally committed to the people process and deeply engaged in it. However, it’s a job you have to love doing as a leader.


Execution-oriented companies are closer to reality, they change faster, are more flexible, and as a result are more successful. They have comprehended that sometimes – and especially if they lack certain know-how, time or peculiar capabilities – they are better off choosing the second or third best option available (the What), and then executing it (the How) better than any of their competitors. Contrariwise, if an organization is able and fortunate enough to select the best chance at hand, but at the same time being not capable of executing it excellence, their realized targets might easily be far behind the ones of group one. 

Leading for execution is a straightforward and a very rewarding exercise. The main requirement is that you as a leader have to be deeply and passionately engaged in your organization and honest about realities with others and yourself. Putting an execution environment and mentality in place is hard, but it’s one of a leader’s most important job. This is true whether you’re in charge of a multinational or your own smaller company.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: